I’ve lived in Skagway, Alaska since 2002, moving here from Wisconsin after deciding that I wasn’t going to be an archaeologist after all. I had spent time doing field work in Belize/Mexico over the course of 3-4 years and while studying the Mayan culture, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the incredible array of Rainforest plants that surrounded me. They were more interesting than the settlement patterns of elite residential compounds I was supposed to be researching. I found the books Sastun and Rainforest Remedies by Rosita Arvigo and I was hooked...the Plant world had captured my attention. And Plants have always been in my life, I had just forgotten them for awhile! My mother was a ‘back-to-the-land’ kind of woman. In her early 20’s she moved 8 hours north to her family’s rustic cabin in Wisconsin, so she could grow her own food and be closer to the Earth.
So I grew up with my mother growing much of our own food, which we ate, and canned, put up in the root cellar and froze for winter. She met my dad a couple years after I was born and he was also a fellow who had great respect for Nature. Fishing and hunting were a big part of my normal as a child. They made maple syrup from the trees on our 5 acre homestead, using this giant cast iron cauldron that I really wish we still had! We raised chickens, goats, dogs and cats, cows, turkeys, sheep and pigs ~ not all at the same time mind you, but spread out over the years. I ate fresh beans and tomatoes ripe and warm from the sunshine, frolicked with baby goats in the Spring, made crystal snow forts in the Winter. I was really really lucky to be raised the way I was. Raised to respect the land under feet, the water lapping at toes and the air surrounding.
I give a bit more detail of my past because it’s truly affected how I deal with the present. Growing up so close to the natural world made it easier to embrace the life of working with plants that I now, gratefully, find myself in.
Recently an herbalist (Rebecca Altman of Kings Road Apothecary, link below) whose writings, work and products I very much admire, asked in a facebook post about ethical wild-crafting: do you teach about it, or do you do it and make products from what you gather? Well, I do do that. And I feel very strongly about wild-crafting in an ethical manner. And aside from a little blurb in the About Us section of this website I haven’t really wrote about it. (I have, of course, spoken about it in many Plant Walks and in conversations with interested folks over the years.) And I haven’t wrote about it because of several reasons, the biggest one, is time. I have two children under the age of 10 and a small business to take care of. I also work part-time at a natural foods store called You Say Tomato where I order and help put out organic produce (organic agriculture is another passion of mine). And I love to garden, a lot! I'm currently a co-director at our Community Garden as well. That right there doesn’t leave much extra time to write these thoughts of mine down....but here I am, writing in the wee hours of the morning because the Plants and the Universe have told me it’s time to do this...
But what does ethical wild-crafting, ethical wild-harvesting mean??
For me it means having a deep deep connection to the surrounding land, the place and space around me. It means listening to the plants and heeding their call. It means not taking too much and giving back. It means paying a lot of attention!! (This post isn't a 'how-to', just one of how I got to where I am...)
I’ll admit it, I think my two dogs (sadly, both recently passed) made me a better herbalist. Because of them, I got out into the vast forests surrounding me 4-5 days a week for over 11 years. Seriously.
In 2008 I gave birth to my first child, a boy. I tried to keep doing my garden manager job but it wasn’t working out for anyone. So I became a mostly stay at home mom...I used plant medicine to help us with diaper rash, stretch marks, colds, grumpiness and overwhelm. I started experimenting with making salves using wild-harvested and garden grown plants. By this time I knew where and when a plant was at its best, which ones weren’t prolific and which ones were, when the best time to harvest the leaves, the flowers, roots or seeds would be. I also asked permission, with my thoughts or voice, when I wanted to take a piece of plant away.
Yes, talking to plants is a very good thing and I highly recommend it! (read The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, and you’ll never look at a begonia the same way again!!). Sometimes I’ll hear or feel a positive ‘yes’, sometimes it’s a ‘not right now’ sometimes it’s an outright, ‘NO!’ So regardless of whether or not I really ‘need’ that plant, I must honor what I’ve ‘heard’ or felt. Also, I like to give pretty stones as a gift or a heartfelt Thank You when I harvest. It’s a reciprocal relationship.
For instance, when a dead branch falls unto a high bush cranberry plant and causes it’s stems to bend, I may pull off that dead branch. After harvesting Devil’s Club I’ll replant some roots in other places. When the best wild nettle patch gets covered with fallen alders, I’ll clip back as much as I can so the nettles will still survive (and then I get to watch as they slowly enter the meadow below!). And I’ll grow those nettles from stem cuttings and plant them in my gardens (much to my partners dismay... :) ) Come across a broken branch on the ground with some Usnea growing, maybe I’ll use it but oftentimes I just put it into a crook of a tree so the wind won’t blow it off again. When I see garbage, I pick it up.
You can’t just take and take and take from Nature. Eventually she’ll turn on you and we’ve seen that beginning to happen...intense and more frequent storms, earthquakes due to fracking, poisoned animals poisoning people...so it’s my hope that by working so closely with the plants, I can help bridge the perceived gap between Us and Nature and encourage people to respect and revere what we still have on this beautiful planet.
In 2011 I began this business, Maiden Alaska Herbals, with the intention of creating plant based products to help with everyday ailments. It allowed me a flexible work schedule, a way to help others use natural products in their lives, and the ability to continue learning about my passion, the Plants. Along with several other ladies, we began the Garden City Market, an artisan based market. I began to sell salves at Markets and also wholesaled to a few select stores in town. Slowly my business grew, and in 2013 I had another child, a girl. Life really became crazy busy after that!
But back to Devil’s Club...a little over a year ago a store that I had started wholesaling my products to in the very beginning, decided to post some of their goods on Amazon. They included my Devil’s Club Salve. At first the boost in business felt good, I was helping more people after all, even though I was less than thrilled about the Amazon behemoth; but as time went by, I had to make more and more in order to supply demand. I began to feel like the Onceler instead of the Lorax (it’s a Dr. Seuss reference)...this did not feel right. And the thought that I was beginning to take more from the forest than I was ‘allowed' crept in. That business exchanged hands and the connection between buyer, seller and maker was stretched thinner. And I felt the magic between the plants, myself and the person using it was stretched to a breaking point. So I asked them to stop selling on Amazon. And told them the reasons why. They did, and I felt the knot in my tummy instantly let up as my bottom line dropped. Finally I felt in balance again...But it’s a delicate dance this wild-harvesting...the relationship between harvester and plant and place needs to be strong in order to keep the balance of reciprocity. That said, I will continue to listen to the plants and work with them and change as need be....
Thanks for reading this, my first blog post...there’s so much more swirling around in my head regarding this topic of ethical wild-harvesting, but I think this will do for the time being. I admit, I feel a bit rusty writing so much, college papers were many moons ago...and also vulnerable...putting ideas and thoughts out into the ether for others to read and comment on is...well, it’s exciting and daunting, all at the same time!
Blooms & Blessings ~ Emily Grace
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